Here’s What You Need To Know About Pulling All Nighters

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Ask any doctor, and they’d probably say that pulling all-nighters should never be standard operating procedure for surviving college. Ask any college student, and they’d probably say pulling all-nighters is a necessary evil when you’re taking 18 credits and holding down a job because you like the idea of eating regularly. But while burning the midnight oil may give you a few extra hours to write an essay comparing John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or cram for your Sociology final, it can take a swipe at your reasoning and how you feel in class the next day, so much so that you might reconsider your plans for your next all-nighter.   

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.

Long Story Short

  • All-nighters are often a part of collegiate life.
  • A lack of sleep, courtesy of all-nighters, can lead to a host of cognitive deficits, moodiness, irritability, and health issues over the long term.
  • All-nighters are not recommended, but if you must, be sure to prepare ahead of time by banking sleep. During your all-nighter, turn up the lights and take frequent breaks.

The Side Effects of Pulling an All-Nighter

Adil A. Mohammed, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist in general psychiatry at Harmony United Psychiatric Care, tells Sleepopolis, “The three main ways that pulling an all-nighter and sleep deprivation could impact your body are through your cognitive function, mood, and physical wellbeing. These side effects can include decreased concentration and reaction time, lower ability to follow instructions, irritability due to increased cortisol, increased sensitivity to pain, and decreased endurance, just to name a few.”

Essentially, all-nighters lead to sleep deprivation, and research has shown that they can cause the same impairment as being intoxicated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to a few studies that indicate: 

  • Being awake for 17 hours is comparable with having a BAC of 0.05 percent (1)
  • Being awake for 24 hours is comparable with having a BAC of 0.10 percent (1)

Beyond leaving you to feel — and think — like you’ve had too much to drink, pulling all-nighters can also cause the following effects.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

EDS is one of the first side effects most people notice after pulling an all-nighter. In this context, excessive daytime sleepiness is characterized by pronounced sleepiness, an inclination toward napping, and prolonged difficulty waking up. (2)


In addition to daytime drowsiness, all-nighters may cause you to experience microsleeps — short bursts of involuntary napping, where your eyes may be open, but your ability to pay attention and process information is at a standstill. This can lead to obvious issues if you doze off during a lecture or meeting, but it can be downright dangerous in the case of drowsy driving or other situations that may put the physical health of yourself and others at risk. (3)

Mood Swings

Sleep and mood are closely linked, so the sleep deprivation associated with all-nighters usually leads to a deterioration in mood. Following an all-nighter, you may feel more irritable and impatient — be prepared for your friends and loved ones to give you a wide berth! (4)

Memory Issues

One of the key functions of deep sleep (or stage 3) is to sort through the information from our day, form memories, and transfer them into long-term storage. Insufficient sleep doesn’t allow your hippocampus (your brain’s memory center) to do all of the above, and the net result is impaired memory and recall. (5)

Long-term Health Issues

Our bodies need adequate sleep to keep us healthy. When we’re not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, that can contribute to a host of adverse health effects, including hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and heart disease. (6) (7)

While we’re sleeping, our bodies activate a host of mechanisms that protect our minds and bodies. For example, during sleep, your body releases growth hormone (which plays a role in sugar and fat metabolism and heart function, and cytokines, which protect against disease. (8) (9) (10)

Sleep and Learning

Noting that the practice is actually counterproductive, Mohammed says, 

“The number of students, especially college students, who pull all-nighters and believe that they can be beneficial in terms of learning is alarming.” 

Whew — harsh, but Mohammed is quick to explain. “Although it may seem like you are creating more time for yourself to study by pulling an all-nighter and cramming for a big test, a night of no sleep can actually worsen your test scores,” he says. “In fact, a study by two MIT professors in 2019 found a correlation between sleep and test scores — the less sleep students got during the semester, the worse their test scores were. (11) So for any college students considering pulling an all-nighter for their next big test, it’s important to consider that your scores could be negatively impacted as a result.”

Mohammed tells us that poor academic performance may be “due to the side effects of sleep deprivation, including fatigue, low energy levels, a lack of overall concentration, a limitation on your cognitive function when problem-solving, and an overall decline in your working memory the following day.”

Tips for Pulling an All-Nighter

As a general rule, all-nighters are ill-advised. Since research shows that studying over shorter increments of time over a longer duration actually improves your long-term memory of the information, Mohammed suggests spacing out your study sessions over a few days before a big test or even a few weeks if possible, instead of pulling an all-nighter. (12) 

“For instance, if you have 12 hours of free time in a week to spend studying for an upcoming test, it’s much better for overall retention to study three hours a day for four days rather than cramming a 12-hour study session into one night,” he explains. 

Laura Purdy, MD, MBA, and Board-Certified Family Medicine Physician, says, “if you must pull an all-nighter, setting the correct environment is critical to helping your body and mind stay awake. This includes drinking caffeine, being in a room that has a lot of natural light or is well-lit, and staying hydrated.” 

Prepare With a Good Night’s Sleep

If you’re planning an all-nighter, you might consider preparing ahead of time by getting more sleep in the days and nights leading up to your study session. Keep in mind banking sleep doesn’t necessarily make up for what you’ll be missing, but it could help mitigate some of the more deleterious effects. For adults ages 18 to 64, the CDC recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. (13)  As a reminder, banking sleep won’t necessarily help you retain more or perform better; it’s really just meant to take the edge off pulling an all-nighter. 

Take a Power Nap

Speaking of banking sleep, research suggests that taking a power nap before an all-nighter may give your brain a boost and help with retention. (14) (15) If you choose to do so, remember to keep it short — 10 to 20 minutes should be plenty. You don’t want to wake up feeling so groggy that studying is the last thing on your mind. Keep in mind that while some studies highlight the benefits of napping on cognitive performance, the research is limited in many ways, and napping is not a replacement for quality sleep overnight.

Turn Up the Lights 

The timing of your body’s sleep-wake cycle is strongly influenced by light. Dim lights stimulate melatonin production, making you feel sleepy, while bright light can boost alertness and attention. (16) So when you need some assistance in staying awake and alert, turn on overhead lights and boost the brightness on your computer screens. We’ll add here that existing research really peels back the onion in terms of the type of light and specific wavelengths, but the TLDR is: light in this situation is better than no light.

Drink Up

While most online literature warns against drinking coffee at night, the exception is pulling an all-nighter. In this case, you’ll need to block your adenosine receptors — receptors that ultimately alert your brain that you are sleepy — this has the net effect of boosting your concentration. (17)

Caffeine makes a good all-nighter aid, but it’s important to remember that too much can come with some undesirable side effects like jitters, headaches, and anxiety. So, just be sure to monitor your intake. (18)

If you’re knocking back the coffee to stay awake during an all-nighter, remember it’s a diuretic — be sure to pepper in some water to counteract dehydration and grogginess. 

Avoid Alcohol 

Alcohol is a well-known sedative, so it should go without saying that if you want to make it through your all-nighter with a reasonable level of alertness, skip the beer or wine. 

Take Breaks to Get Up and Move

When you’re watching the clock and thinking about everything you need to get done, taking a break may not seem feasible. But plenty of evidence suggests that frequent breaks may be the key to your success. One study showed that micro-breaks may be a great way to maintain energy levels and alleviate fatigue, and longer breaks paved the way for better performance. (19)

While it may sound counterintuitive, give your productivity and focus a boost by taking frequent breaks. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it and shoot yourself in the foot, so you might want to stick to a 5-minute break for each hour of work. 

Recovering After an All-Nighter: The Day After 

Mohammed and Purdy both agree that rest and recovery are crucial following an all-nighter. 

“Don’t plan any extraneous activities the day after an all-nighter, such as a late night out with friends or a difficult workout at the gym — let your body rest the following day, physically and mentally,” says Mohammed. He also recommends aiming for an earlier bedtime the following night to ensure you get enough sleep and avoiding long naps due to the potential havoc it can cause come bedtime. 

Purdy adds, “Don’t forget to drink lots of water and fuel your body with healthy foods to help maintain good energy levels.”

Other tips for recovering after a poor night’s sleep include:

  • Get back to a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it.
  • Caffeinate, but don’t overdo it. You want to stay alert enough to make it through your day, but you don’t want to stymie your sleep later. 
  • Get some sun. Bright light makes you feel more awake and alert. Stepping out into the sunshine will also help regulate your circadian rhythm, reset your internal clock to help you feel tired, and make it easier to fall asleep easily at the end of the day.

Circadian Rhythm, Defined

Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour internal clock in our brain that regulates our sleep and wake cycles. (20)


What should I eat when pulling an all-nighter?

“Although I would not recommend pulling an all-nighter, if you feel that you must, fuel your body with protein-rich foods and fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Mohammed. While he notes it might be easier to choose simple carbs like bread and processed foods, Mohammed says “these foods are known to cause drowsiness and often make it more difficult to stay awake and focus on the material.” 

A great all-nighter snack option could be an apple with peanut butter and a cheese stick, which could be a great option to get a healthy source of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.”

Why is pulling an all-nighter bad?

“When our bodies are resting, they are getting a much-needed recovery period where they relax, reset, and recover from the previous wake time,” says Purdy. “When you don’t give your body the time to rest, you are taking away this much-needed recovery period and setting the stage for impaired cognitive function, a compromised immune system, mood swings, irritability, and poor judgment.”

The Last Word From Sleepopolis 

While all-nighters are a long-standing tradition among college students, they’re not recommended by the medical community. If you must pull an all-nighter, be sure to plan ahead and take the necessary steps toward recovery the next day. 


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          Purdy, Laura. Personal Interview. October 23, 2024. 

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.